In response to the spate of suicides in Attawapiskat this past week, Indigenous activists, alongside activists from Black Lives Matter, took over the Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) Offices in Toronto. A state of emergency was declared after a group of 11 youth agreed to attempt suicide together. Supporters gather outside the INAC office on St. Clair Ave. daily to show support and solidarity with the youth of Attawapiskat with drumming, dancing, prayers and their physical presence.
The support doesn’t end there. INAC takeovers have been happening across the country. Peaceful actions in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Regina, Kenora and Vancouver saw workers emptied from the regional INAC offices. Government workers have been replaced with Indigenous men, women and children singing their truths with their voices and their drums while sacred medicines burn in the offices. Many Indigenous activists are citing colonialism as the root of the problem.
It seems that Indigenous people’s living conditions have become normalized.
According to an official statement from the #OccupyINAC group in Winnipeg: “These crises are not new and do not exist in isolation. Suicide has long plagued our communities due to centuries of colonization and it’s effects: crushing poverty, substandard housing, imprisonment, child apprehension and lack of access to health care, nutrition and clean water.
The resulting destruction of identity, lack of self-worth and cognitive imperialism are the roots of suicide in our people. This issue is inseparable from the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the legacy of residential schools, the 11,000 and counting children in care in Manitoba and the theft, pollution and exploitation of the land, water and air. The violence perpetrated against nature reflects the violence perpetrated against our women, our men and our youth.”
Activists occupying the INAC offices remain steadfast in their resolution to support the youth of Attawapiskat by demanding that the Canadian government meet the demands of the young people. Maanii Oakes told media that the activists are occupying the offices to ensure that the children, “get the justice they deserve.” Activist Gary Wasaaykeesic from #GroundZeroINAC in Toronto echoed the desire to focus the attention on the youth of Attawapiskat. “It’s not about us. It’s about the youth.”
The youth of Attawapiskat asked to meet with Justin Trudeau to discuss the impacts of lack of infrastructure in their communities. Many of the demands from the youth reflect the lack of continuity of cultural relevance in their communities. Poster boards outlining the concerns of the youth were hung in the INAC office in downtown Toronto — they include requests for more access to ceremony and traditional knowledge.
On Monday, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett and Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for the James Bay-Timmins region visited the people of Attawapiskat. After the meeting, Charlie Angus took to his social media to share how the Liberal government “will build a youth centre, establish programs for youth engagement, work to get a healing centre to help those in crisis, hold a special youth summit of NAN (Nishnaabe Aski Nation) youth in Ottawa and establish a permanent Indigenous youth advisory council for the youth.”
Angus called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons last Tuesday to address the state of emergency called in Attawapiskat. “Where is the will to take from the youth and start regional and national teams where the youth are empowered to come to this parliament and tell us what change should look like because the days of Indian Affairs and Health Canada dictating to them how the resources are going to be spent. That is a failed model and it has to end.”
Last Friday, INAC offices were closed, furthering the narrative that Indigenous and Northern Affairs doesn’t seem to care. “If these were non-aboriginal children, all the resources would be in their schools. If it’s aboriginal kids, well hey, take a number, stand in line. Meanwhile, kids are dying every day,” said Charlie Angus. Despite the attempts to silence the opposition, public pressure has increased with offices being shut down across the country.
In Toronto, the activists have been denied access to washrooms but they insist that will remain until the voice of the youth is heard. Firetrucks have been called to “deal with” the sage and sweetgrass that the activists were burning inside the office. Despite the repression, the activists remain on site with astounding local and national support. On Tuesday evening, supporters blocked the intersection in front of the INAC office with their bodies and their songs to voice their unity in support for the youth of Attawapiskat and the growing momentum.
Commentaries from across the country continue to raise awareness of the long lasting effects of the Indian Act and many are questioning if “resources” are what the youth need. Youth from Attawapiskat included a Parenting Centre and a request for their communities to be drug and alcohol free. Activists from across the country have been calling for the abolition of the 140-year-old Indian Act.
Bomgiizhik from Genabaajing joined in the action at the INAC office in downtown Toronto. “If they want to talk about reconciliation, they better start talking about land, they better start talking about languages, they better start talking about the waters because that’s what’s important to our people.”
The #OccupyINAC movement seems to agree on one thing absolutely and that is the youth of Attawapiskat need more than money to address these issues. These are problems deeply rooted in colonial capitalism. “This colonization, this colonialism from the Indian Act has created poverty, it has created despair, it has created suicide,” said Sue Deranger, an activist in Regina. Over the weekend, Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh took to social media to ask people to pray for five more people who attempted suicide.